Sports historian James Hamilton marvels at the pioneering works of film, sound and photography which, once lost, are now freely available again on the internet, and he ponders their profound impact on our sense of history…
One of the joys of sports history is that you get to involve yourself in the work of media pioneers: the first men and women to record sound, take colour photographs and make films. And the beauty of doing it now is that over the last fifteen years or so, much of the early work of these people has been saved from the vaults where it lay silent and unwatched for a century and digitised. When I embarked upon my research, Mitchell and Kenyon’s films had only just arrived at the BFI: the impact of their rediscovery on attitudes towards Victorian and Edwardian football has been staggering.
And now much of it is on the internet. Which means you can write about it and show it at the same time, one of those marvellous new tricks which even the astonishing Time-Life publications of 20-30 years ago could not pull off.
There were already startling survivals from early photography of course – the dim faces eyeing you from inside brothel windows in Eugène Atget’s images of Paris, for instance. But with the internet has come another kind of media survival: pioneering attempts that were failures in their day but which digital technology can complete and make available to us at last. Under this heading comes Edwardian home sound recording, Edwardian colour film (movies and stills), and, later, stereo recording from the interwar period.
The more vivid of these accidental survivals serve to illustrate how distorting and misleading much conventional early photography, sound and film actually is – it’s as if nothing’s being recorded in the preserving-reality sense at all; it’s all just shards presented for our interpretation. “Black and white” (still more so sepia) is a step away from our observed reality: it is a distancing. So too is the hand-cranking of early film; the rustle and pop of early sound recordings.
It doesn’t help that old photographs and accounts of the past are crowded with what’s different, with everything that’s changed. You could even say that we expect distancing: witness the tone of voice someone employs when they revisit a childhood haunt only to find everything just as they’d left it many years before.
Then there’s the very fact that early photography and sound recording was so expensive: it compelled early adopters to record what “should” be recorded, or what could generate cash. Early colour photography is especially galling in this respect: here’s another vase of flowers, another native costume, when what you long for is the camera to swing round and capture the slum district and railway station. Of conventional photographic survival, what we value most now isn’t the royal portrait or the grand frontage – it’s the accidentally recorded detail, the life-giving blur, the background detail, the ‘found’ image, the face in the crowd that turned in that one moment and met the photographer, and you, in the eye.
The brilliant failures of the early pioneers, restored in the digital age, smash all that distance aside. They provide us with the shock of being alive: the sudden injection of the unexpectedly normal. Our ancestors weren’t grey starchy upright people who knew what they were doing: they turn out just to have been people like us: living on the edge of history, often bewildered or confused.
Here are three of those brilliant pioneers and their brilliant failures, now rescued, restored, complete. These were all to different degrees forgotten things, fortunate survivals, brought back by a series of hilarious coincidences and blind luck.
1. Frederick Ives – Ives’ “photochromoscope” system for creating colour stereo images was expensive, cumbersome and – what a shame, this – far ahead of its time. These views of San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake have undergone considerable reconstruction and restoration, but what images: you can look to the horizon and, for all its troubles, hear the city live and breathe. Monochrome neutralizes nothing so much as advertising. But look at the signs here! Modern commentators who want to claim that our society has rendered everything into a commodity might contemplate the breezy, colourful ubiquity of advertising in the Edwardian era.
2. Lionel Mapleson – Mapleson was the son of Queen Victoria’s personal librarian. By 1902 he was spending half of his time in New York, archivist for the Metropolitan Opera house and amateur recording enthusiast. During performances, he’d lurk high above the orchestra in one of those vertiginous alcoves open only to stagehands, and attempt to capture the music onto Edison cylinders. One day in 1902, he took home a cylinder, on which he’d recorded part of the opera Manru, and “taped” a few astonishing seconds of Edwardian English family life…. and you can listen to it here.
3. RCA Victor – Engineers have done their best, but it’s hard to get around the heartbreaking fact that jazz greats Ellington, Armstrong, Bechet, Waller, Oliver and company had their golden years in the days of mechanical and primitive electric recording methods, leaving us to wonder what the greatest jazz bands were really like live. In 1931-2, RCA Victor conducted experiments into stereo recording (stereo broadcasts had been possible from the start – indeed, stereo broadcasts were made by telephone as early as the 1880s). These were limited, insofar as we know, to two orchestras. One was Leopold Stokowski’s. The other was Duke Ellington, and you can hear the astonishing results here.
There is a sense with all of these efforts of so near and yet so far. With just a little more effort at the time, one feels, this window into the past – opened just a crack – could have been flung wide.
Future historians will have thousands of hours of perfectly clear sound and colour film from the 1970s onwards, which people will watch in the full knowledge that everyone in them is dead. For those who are alert to it, perhaps it will be be easier to believe in the reality of their own coming demise. All of the One Shows, the X Factors, the Big Brothers… all on repeat and everyone in them dead. It’s just starting to happen – the reruns of old general election coverage on BBC Parliament on recess weekends are full of the famous enthused dead, completely caught up in their finished lives: you almost want to shout a warning to them.
But morbid thoughts aside, as a historian it’s hard not to feel a certain envy of my counterparts a century hence, who will be able to confront us, long after our own departures, in all the clarity and fidelity modern recording permits.